Bullpen woes cost Phillies again as club swept by Rangers

Bullpen woes cost Phillies again as club swept by Rangers

BOX SCORE

ARLINGTON, Tex. — As Phillies players showered, dressed and hurried off for the bus to the airport late Thursday afternoon, Freddy Galvis lingered in front of his locker and stewed in the juices of the team's 15th loss in the last 18 games.

"It sucks, man," Galvis said. "That's the truth. If somebody says it's OK, it's not OK. We're (bleeping) losing a lot of games."

The latest was an 8-4 loss to the Texas Rangers (see Instant Replay). Now, the Rangers are smokin' hot. They've won nine in a row, averaging 6.5 runs and posting a 2.66 ERA over that span. While it's true that they caught the Rangers at a bad time, the Phils didn't exactly play good baseball while getting swept in Texas. They were outscored 22-8 in the series and their starting pitchers went just six, four and 4 2/3 innings, respectively, in the three games. Meanwhile, Rangers starters delivered seven innings in each game.

Thursday's game turned when the Rangers rallied for five runs in the fifth inning to erase a 2-0 deficit. Ryan Rua's three-run homer against a completely ineffective Joely Rodriguez was the game-changing blow. It was the 27th homer surrendered by the Phillies' bullpen this season, the most in baseball.

The Phillies are now 14-24, matching their worst 38-game start since 2000.

Galvis, the team's longest-tenured player, is frustrated.

"When you're losing and losing and losing …" he vented. "We have to play better baseball. We have to be on the same page. We have four months to go and if we don't start playing better, it's going to be a bad season. We have to play better, play together, fight, make pitches, get on base, move runners.

"We're not doing what it takes to win games. I'm tired of losing so many games. If somebody says it's OK, it's not OK.

"You have to know how to win, how to play 162 games. You have to stick together, play together on the field. We have a bunch of good players and a bunch of good coaches but it's just not there right now. We need to show everybody we belong here. We're not doing what we're supposed to be doing. Pitch, run, get on base, move runners. We're not doing that and that's why we're losing, losing and losing."

The Phillies have lost 15 times since winning six in a row and heading to Dodger Stadium on April 28. Thirteen of those losses have come against top competition — the Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals and Rangers. All four of those clubs made the postseason last year — the Cubs won it all — and have October hopes this season.

The rebuilding Phillies did not enter the season with October hopes.

But they were supposed to be better than this.

"We need to step it up," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We're better than what we're going through right now. But we need to execute, play better. I can't make excuses. We have to pitch better and hit better."

Maikel Franco has slumped lately. Mackanin dropped him to seventh in the order Thursday and he responded with some good swings, a hard-hit sacrifice fly to center and a homer to right as he drove in the first two runs.

But Odubel Herrera, another player being counted on for offense, has slumped badly. He went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. He is hitless in his last 11 at-bats and is just 3 for 23 through six games on the road trip, dropping him to .242 on the season. His on-base percentage is now .298.

The Phillies are just 3-12 in the month of May. The team ERA in the month is an obscene 5.87. For the season it is 4.92, second worst in baseball.

Nick Pivetta added to that ERA during four starts with the club, but he's a rookie and he's learning. He needs to throw more strikes so he can stay in games longer. He will continue to work on that in Triple A as he was returned to the minors after Thursday's start. The Phillies will likely add a bullpen arm for a couple of days in Pittsburgh before activating starter Aaron Nola on Sunday.

Pivetta took a 2-0 lead into the fifth inning Thursday, but a one-out walk cost him a chance to finish the inning and he was lifted with two outs and 107 pitches. The move to go to the lefty Rodriguez made sense because dangerous Nomar Mazara was coming to the plate and he was just 3 for 27 against lefties. But Rodriguez walked Mazara. Then he gave up two run-scoring hits before Rua's killer homer.

Rodriguez ended up being tagged for six hits, two walks and seven runs in just two-thirds of an inning in taking the final loss of this Texas torture.

"He just didn't pitch well," Mackanin understated.

Today's Lineup: Maikel Franco batting 7th as designated hitter

Today's Lineup: Maikel Franco batting 7th as designated hitter

Maikel Franco finds himself in new territory.

Franco will hit seventh and serve as the Phillies' designated hitter Thursday in their series finale with the Rangers. It will be the first time Franco will DH in his career. And Franco has had just eight plate-apperances in his career batting seventh. 

Andres Blanco will play third base and he's batting fifth, behind Tommy Joseph.

Franco has a hit in his last four games, including an RBI single in the ninth inning of the Phillies' 9-3 loss to Texas. In May, the 24-year-old is hitting .213 with one home run and five RBIs. He has nine strikeouts in 47 at-bats this month but hasn't struck out in his last five games.

Nick Pivetta is on the hill for the Phillies. He will likely be sent back to Triple A Lehigh Valley sometime before Sunday when Aaron Nola is expected to return from the disabled list.

Here is the Phillies' full lineup.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Odubel Herrera, CF
3. Aaron Altherr, LF
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Andres Blanco
6. Michael Saunders, RF
7. Maikel Franco, DH
8. Andrew Knapp, C
9. Freddy Galvis, SS

P: Nick Pivetta

And the Rangers' lineup:

1. Shin-Soo Choo, DH
2. Elvis Andrus, SS
3. Nomar Mazara, RF
4. Robinson Chirinos, C
5. Rougned Odor, 2B
6. Ryan Rua, 1B
7. Joey Gallo, 3B
8. Jared Hoying CF
9. Delino DeShields Jr., LF

For more on today's game, check out Steven Tydings' game notes.

Phillies Mailbag: Herrera's contract; Pat Venditte; building around Franco; trades

Phillies Mailbag: Herrera's contract; Pat Venditte; building around Franco; trades

With the Phillies off after a pair of one-run games in Sunday's doubleheader, we're reopening the mailbag.

To answer this question we have to go back to the specifics of Herrera's contract.

The Phillies signed Herrera to a deal with five years and $30.5 million guaranteed. The real value of the deal, though, lies in the two club-option years in 2022 and 2023.

With this deal, the Phils bought out Herrera's first three years of free agency for a total of $34 million. 

If he's not living up to the contract, they can cut ties with him before 2022 and save $20.5 million. 

If he is living up to the contract, the Phillies will have Herrera under control for a below-market price in 2022 and 2023.

So, back to the question at hand: Was it premature to sign Herrera to a long-term contract?

It was premature in that the Phillies did not need to sign him to it just yet. They did so because he was coming off a season in which he hit .286, boosted his OBP by 17 points and hit 15 home runs. 

The Phillies felt that his floor was hitting .280 or so with a .340 OBP, but that his ceiling was hitting about .315 with 20 homers. If he can reach that latter set of numbers, the deal is a win for the Phillies.

Right now, Herrera isn't in a great place at the plate. He's been expanding the strike zone too much, and the pitch recognition that enabled him to start last season so strong hasn't been there. Herrera has one walk and 15 strikeouts in May, and that's just not him.

He's proven to be a streaky hitter, and I'd be pretty shocked if Herrera finishes this season hitting below .280. 

And the thing is, even if Herrera does have a down season in 2017, the contract really isn't bad at all for the Phillies.

Where it does play a role, though, is in giving Herrera less incentive to bust out every groundball or not give away at-bats throughout a long season. He knows he has money in the bank already, and naturally, that can result in some more nonchalance.

Herrera is an uncommon player. He has the kind of energy that a team loves when it's winning, but that same youthful exuberance can be misplaced when he's flipping the bat on a flyout down three runs or unnecessarily getting himself out on the bases.

Let's revisit this in a few months.

Pat Venditte, the Phillies' 31-year-old switch-pitcher, has staggering numbers at Lehigh Valley. In 17⅔ innings, he has a 0.00 ERA and has allowed two hits with 11 walks and 21 strikeouts.

Feel free to re-read that paragraph — those are indeed his stats.

Clearly, Venditte has gotten the results. 

The question is: Would it translate to the big leagues?

Venditte has a two-pitch repertoire that includes an 85 mph fastball and a low-70s curveball. He has deception because of his submarine-type delivery from both sides.

He's made it to the majors with three different teams: the Athletics in 2015 and the Blue Jays and Mariners in 2016. All told, he has a 4.97 ERA in 41 appearances and has walked 4.1 batters per nine innings.

The walks are the worry. If Venditte issues free passes in the majors, will his stuff play against the best competition in the world?

Venditte is not on the Phillies' 40-man roster, but he does have an option remaining. This means that if the Phillies were to add him to the 40 and promote him to the majors and he struggles, they could send him back down without exposing him to waivers.

Right now, the Phillies' 40-man roster is full and their recent moves indicate they don't want to lose anybody. But Adam Morgan might not be long for it. The Phils have needed a long reliever in recent weeks and have turned to guys like Mark Leiter Jr., Jake Thompson and Ben Lively rather than promote Morgan.

If the Phillies' bullpen continues to struggle, Morgan continues to struggle at Triple A and Venditte's results stick, that 40-man swap could occur sometime in the next few weeks.

And, quite frankly, even if the Phils don't believe Venditte's stuff can translate to the majors, they should at least make him prove that. It's not like their bullpen has thrived or they're on a path to 2017 contention.

Franco can be an organizational building block but I don't see him as a player you can build an offense around. To this point, he's basically been Pedro Feliz with slightly more power and slightly worse defense.

Maybe he proves me wrong, but to me, Franco is more of a No. 6 hitter on an NL contender than "The Guy."

This is an interesting question because, quite honestly, there aren't many I'd deem untouchable for the right return. 

Would you trade Dylan Cozens and Nick Williams for a top-tier pitcher or hitter? Would you move Rhys Hoskins or Tommy Joseph for the right price? 

The Phillies are building depth at catcher, first base and the outfield. If Joseph or Hoskins show enough to be the clear answer at first, it would make some sense to move the other one. 

Same goes for the catchers, although Alfaro has so much more potential than Cameron Rupp and Andrew Knapp, so I guess my answer to this question is Alfaro.

But the Phillies won't graduate all of these prospects to the majors and keep them there. They'd have too many outfielders with Aaron Altherr, Odubel Herrera, Cozens, Williams and Roman Quinn.

They'd have too many middle infielders with Cesar Hernandez, J.P. Crawford, Scott Kingery, Freddy Galvis and Jesmuel Valentin.

But the Phils aren't going to make that trade until it's for the right player. It's not going to be for someone like Andrew McCutchen. It's going to be for an ascending player entering his prime.

No deal, really, other than the fact that Rupp continues to be a valuable offensive catcher. Since the start of 2016, he's hit .256/.315/.452 with 34 doubles and 19 home runs in 517 plate appearances.

Over that span of time, Rupp has a higher OPS than Brian McCann, Salvador Perez and Matt Wieters, and he is just percentage points lower than Yadier Molina and J.T. Realmuto.

Rupp's 54 extra-base hits are tied for sixth among all catchers since 2016, behind only Perez, Evan Gattis, Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy and Molina. All five of those players have between 73 and 221 more plate appearances than Rupp.

Defensively, there are still questions about Rupp's game-calling and receiving, but those same concerns exist for Alfaro.

At some point this offseason or early next season, one of these catchers will likely be traded if all three are healthy. Rupp would seem to be the most logical trade candidate because he's already produced at the big-league level and would bring back a more meaningful return than Knapp.

Kelly, the 25th man, has picked up three big hits in his last four games with pinch-hit doubles last Wednesday and Saturday and the game-winning RBI single in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader.

He's a switch-hitter who has played first base, second base, third base and all three outfield positions in the majors.

That makes for a valuable National League bench piece. So long as he contributes at the plate once or twice a week, he'll have a job somewhere in the NL.

Howie Kendrick won't be taking Altherr's place when he returns. Nor will he be taking Joseph's place right away, considering Joseph is second in the majors to Altherr in OPS this month.

What you could see, though, is Kendrick play four games per week between first base, third base and left field, spelling Franco some days, Joseph others and Michael Saunders (particularly against lefties).

It's a good problem for the Phillies to have, but there is no chance Altherr returns to the bench. Barring injury, Altherr will be an everyday starter through the end of the season.

Vince Velasquez is the obvious and popular answer but I still think the Phillies give him about 50 more starts before possibly going that route.

I think Mark Appel's best chance to contribute in this organization would be in relief. But I just don't see it for some of the other guys. 

I don't think Ben Lively has good enough stuff to be a setup man — you just don't see setup men throwing 89 mph unless they have a degree of deception like Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler, Pat Neshek.

I don't think Jake Thompson can stick as a setup man either unless pitching regularly in relief gets his fastball up to 96 mph or so.

Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Zach Eflin are obviously long-term starters.